The defence relationship is said to be the engine of the India-US strategic partnership, so when Nirmala Sitharaman as the first, full-fledged woman defence minister of India arrived on her first official visit, the red carpet was ready.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis received her at the sprawling Pentagon building with a formal ceremony, complete with what the Americans call an “enhanced honour cordon”.
The two were meeting for the fourth time in a little over a year, a satisfying frequency in a US administration beset with problems, and changing faces.
Sitharaman’s Strategic Gesture
Sitharaman was scheduled to visit much earlier – she was to stay on after the 2+2 Dialogue in Washington, which was supposed to be held first in April, and then in July. The dialogue was postponed twice because of various difficulties on the US side. It was finally held in New Delhi in September, forcing a rearrangement of her visit.
When the dates were finally agreed upon, the US side pulled out all the stops with personal attention by Mattis, someone who takes every opportunity to stress India’s role in the US strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
But Sitharaman’s was largely a feel-good visit, not one designed to achieve breakthroughs or forge new commitments. There was goodwill, kind gestures, repetition of talking points and recalling of past meetings.
As has now become routine when top Indian and US officials meet, there was also soaring rhetoric, which raised some questions. Mattis, the soldier scholar and one of the few solid pillars in the Trump administration, struck all the right notes as he welcomed Sitharaman into the Pentagon. Before coming to the Pentagon, he had just laid a wreath at the Arlington National Cemetery, a gesture for which Mattis especially thanked her.
Sitharaman’s decision to go to the cemetery to pay India’s respect was smart, because it went down well with the US side. Honouring the US military’s sacrifices even if you question the political motives of those who ordered the war, was a good gesture.
Overcoming the “Hesitations of History”
Mattis was effusive in his welcome remarks – an indication of how much Washington values India’s (potential) role and its weight in the Indo-Pacific, where China wants to play king. He called the Indo-US relationship a “natural partnership” between the world’s oldest and the largest democracies.
He recalled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words about the two countries overcoming the “hesitations of history” – a phrase that has become shorthand for the enhanced relationship. That was smart on his part because it’s good to remind each other of words spoken, promises made and signals sent.
Mattis then went on to say something that might puzzle observers of Indo-US relations. He said there was “no contradiction between strategic autonomy and strategic partnership.” He said the view had endured through multiple US administrations.
True, the view endures, but to deny the frustrations the inherent contradictions between the two concepts create in Washington and the disappointments in Delhi, would be dishonest.
The compulsions of strategic autonomy pull India in one direction, and the need for a partnership with the US brings it back, often reluctantly, to find a middle path, which is never really satisfactory for either party.
“Growing Mutual Trust”
For her part, Sitharaman underscored India’s desire to create “an even more robust relationship than before” with the US and thanked Mattis for his “responsiveness to India’s sensitivities.”
“Our relations are based on common democratic values, enduring, strong political and popular support in both our countries,” she said. “We are encouraged by the strategic importance attached to the India-US defence relationship in the new US National Security Strategy.”
She acknowledged the “growing mutual trust,” which “bodes very well for the future.”
In other words, Mattis’ gave a nod to the notion of “strategic autonomy” and Sitharaman thanked him for his sensitivity, gratified with the choreography. In the end, it’s about letting friends believe what they must because they have to survive in a democratic set up.
Potential US Sanctions Against India Resolved
But most importantly, Mattis seemed confident that the issue of potential US sanctions against India under CAATSA or Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, for buying the Russian S-400 air defence system could be resolved to mutual satisfaction.
India needs a waiver from CAATSA, something that only President Donald Trump will ultimately decide.
Mattis seemed to see the Indian decision to buy S-400 in the context of its historic philosophy of non-alignment, and the gradual shift away from it.
“We have a growing strategic confluence of interests… so we’ll work all this forward,” he said. When the time comes, the decidedly broad view of Mattis may hold in the White House in favour of a waiver or it may not. Given Trump’s unpredictability, nothing can be taken for granted. But it’s good to have the US defence secretary understand the broad picture.
Keeping Our Ties Afloat
Mattis hosted a dinner for Sitharaman at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery, the home of Asian art, bringing the day-long visit to the US capital to a charming close.
The minister then left for California to visit the Pentagon’s Defence Innovation Unit where Silicon Valley meets the Defence Department to find solutions to military problems. She was keen to interact with the team there because New Delhi wants to emulate the idea at home.
Sitharaman was also scheduled to visit the headquarters of the newly re-christened US Indo-Pacific Command and have meetings with senior US officials, including Admiral Philip Davidson, the commander.
In the end, the visit coming just three months after the 2+2 dialogue was a good way for top officials to stay engaged before New Delhi is consumed with electoral preoccupations.
(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. The views expressed in this article are of the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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